In 2023, construction remains the most male-dominated sector in Australia, with female participation at just 13 per cent. Attracting more women to the industry could be part of the solution to the crippling skills shortages the broader sector is facing. How then, do we build workplaces that are attractive to everyone and that women can thrive in?
Across Australia, women remain an untapped talent pool. In construction, only 2 per cent of women working within the sector are in trades.
There is a push within Governments and industry bodies to improve the numbers. The National Association of Women in Construction, for example, has set a goal of 25 per cent female participation by 2025.
This trend can be seen throughout the water sector, too. Shifting values within urban water businesses has led to an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. Gender equity is recognised as a meaningful way to foster better outcomes for workers, customers, and the community.
Across the sector, authorities and councils are putting ‘gender on the tender’, asking contractors and suppliers to meet a minimum standard of policies, plans and targets. The Victorian Government is leading the way with gender mandates for publicly funded projects of $20 million or more.
Targets and quotas play an important role in keeping diversity on the agenda and encouraging women through the door. The other piece of the puzzle is creating an inclusive environment that enables women to stay in a business or sector once they arrive.
Tracy Keevers, the Executive Manager of People & Capability at leading pipeline infrastructure company, Interflow, shares her insight.
“True inclusion means removing the barriers preventing women from entering, staying in and thriving in a sector or an organisation,” she says.
“The barriers might come from a poor internal culture or a negative public perception of a particular industry, but they can be practical, too. We need to consider everything from the behaviours and capability of leaders right down to making sure uniform policies are inclusive and the right facilities are available to people.”
Behaviour-led culture change
Construction is perhaps the most male-dominated industry in the country. This has been the case for many generations, leading to outdated masculine ways of working that can make women feel unwelcome.
The sector has come a long way in recent years, but there is still work to be done to rid workplaces of exclusive behaviours. Communicating the broader benefits of structural and cultural change, for men and women, is part of the solution. Another is equipping people with tools to recognise biases and check attitudes that undermine an inclusive culture.
“Having policies in place that promote respect at work is a great first step,” says Keevers. “Just as important is giving people the tools and training to be the best versions of themselves at work and at home.”
“We’ve had a lot of success with positive behaviour-focussed programs and language. This gives our people the confidence to respectfully call out what we call ‘below the waterline’ behaviour, knowing that they will be supported by the business for doing so.”
Making choices visible
If greater diversity in the industry is the key to building a stronger industry, how then do we attract more women in the first place?
One part of the solution is encouraging young women to join the industry or learn a trade from an early age. Perceptions of a sector or career, whether valid or mistaken, can be formed at an early age and influence decisions later in life.
A study has shown that school-aged girls aren’t aware of the opportunities the industry presents and can’t picture themselves in the job. This, coupled with a lack of visible role models, means that working in construction simply isn’t on the radar for many school-aged girls.
While there are programs in place to encourage young women into STEM fields, there isn’t always visibility of the opportunities available to them within the construction sector.
Interflow’s Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Daniella Saumatua, says the opportunities for women in the construction and utility sectors are abundant.
“We have women in the field and on the tools, leading crews, and working as engineers,” she says. “We also have women in roles that are highly transferable between sectors, like in our people team, finance, safety and quality, marketing, IT, community relations, business development – you name it.
“The scale and variety within the sector mean that people can choose their own path and shape their career to suit their interests and expertise.”
Removing the barriers to entry
Long hours, rigid work practices, and ever-changing job locations have long been associated with the construction sector. While these factors disadvantage everyone, they can exclude people with caring responsibilities, most often women.
Now, with a growing trend towards flexible work options, paid parental leave for all parents, a push towards a five-day work week, and a growing focus on wellbeing, the industry is becoming more attractive to everyone.
Flexible working arrangements, like those provided by Interflow, are enabling more women to return to work after taking parental leave.
Interflow’s Georgina Hilder, Community Relations Manager, had her second child while working at Interflow and is currently on parental leave.
“Knowing there are flexible options available means I don’t feel like I need to choose between my career and my family,” says Hilder.
“When women have the reassurance that they can balance a fulfilling career with their personal lives, they’re going to be more likely to return after taking time off to start a family.”
Inclusion begins with the hiring process
While platforms like WORK180 are helping women make informed choices about who they work for, the hiring experience starts and ends with the organisation.
One way to support inclusive hiring practices is to uplift the capabilities of hiring managers. Honing interview skills and teaching leaders how to recognise their biases can open the door to a more diverse range of candidates.
Other ways include making sure your selection processes clear and transparent, writing compelling job ads that outline policies like flexible work options, and focussing on transferable skills.
“We’re shifting the conversation from ‘who is most qualified for the job?’ to ‘who is best for the team, who will add to the culture and bring new ideas?’” Saumatua says.
“There are so many fulfilling opportunities within the construction and water sectors. When we work together to break down the barriers to entry, we’re giving women a chance to build a brighter future for themselves and their communities.”